Big Complicated Machines

Difference Engine #2


Click to Largerizerize the hell out of the image.

I have a certain fondness for high resolution images, very high resolution images in particular, and I’ve come across some gems recently so I thought that I would share with you all.

The image above is of Charles Babbage’s “Difference Engine Number 2” on display at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, and is owned by the technology multimillionaire Nathan Myhrvold. It is one of two of the difference engines ever made, both constructed by the London Science Museum which also has one on display. The engines were designed by Babbage circa 1847 but were never constructed until 1989–91, using his plans and 19th century manufacturing tolerances. The engines are not replicas of each other; Myhrvold’s engine is the first design by Babbage, and the London Science Museum’s is a later model.

Babbage designed and started construction of his first difference engine in 1823 under a contract from the British government. Babbage worked on it until 1842 when the government cancelled the project because it had turned into a money pit with no functioning machine to show for it (Luddites!). In 1837 he designed a general purpose analytical engine (which engineered☞♪♬™☜ talks about here and here), and he used concepts developed in its design when he designed the difference engine #2.

If you click on the image above you will get a very nice hi-res picture to examine and scroll around in, but if you want to look at some very hi-res images of the machine, you need to go over to xRez Studio and look at their gigapixel images of the engine at the Computer History museum. They were contracted in July 2012 to shoot a close-up gigapixel image of the engine that “required 2 days to test for and shoot four cardinal views of the complex and beautiful object, each containing up to 1,350 images and as many as 28 images in each focus stack.” It’s a great piece of work.

The most outrageous image of “Difference Engine #2” that I found was put together somehow by an unknown someone using the gigapixel panoramic image at xRez to create a single image that is a staggering 44,000 x 29,240 pixels in size in an 876 megabyte file. The only program that I found that can actually open the image without gagging is Photoshop, and it takes it a while to stuff it into memory. I would upload the image to the site so that you could play with it if you liked, but the AT sysadmin is a cheap tightwad with no vision or understanding of art and put a limit on the size of the pictures that I can upload. You can download the image from here if you feel froggy¹.


Babbage Difference Engine in Gigapixel by xRez

Difference Engine – Wiki

Charles Babbage – Wiki

¹ If you feel froggy, leap!

  • A little over a decade ago my doctoral advisor recommended me to Nathan Myhrvold as a geology instructor for his kids, so he called and interviewed me at length over the phone.

    He decided not to hire me; I see now we each had our differences.

    • The Professor

      You were probably too negative in your summation.

      • I suspect that was patently the case.

  • Well, there's your trouble right there. If this is the 1st design by Babbage and it's #2 then all subsequent calculations are faulty. The British government must have realized this and nixed the project; if only Samuel Clemens had had that perspicacity with the Paige Typosetting Machine.

    • The Professor

      Actually, this is the first version of the second design. I think that the Brits saw the plans for it and decided that the Empire didn't contain sufficient funding, so they went and conquered the Raj again and got distracted and never built it.

  • CaptianNemo2001

    Have they actually put it through its paces and shot video of it running?

    Also for the AT readership who have time to read.
    The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

    I plan to read it at some point but never seem to have the time.

    • The Professor

      There is a video at the xRez link.